The purpose of the work was to determine minimum atmospheric electric fields required for lightning initiation from an airborne vehicle at various altitudes up to 10 km. The problem was reduced to the determination of a condition for initiation of a viable positive leader from a conductive object in an ambient electric field. It was shown that, depending on air density and shape and dimensions of the object, critical atmospheric fields are governed by the condition for leader viability or that for corona onset. To establish quantitative criteria for reduced air densities, available observations of spark discharges in long laboratory gaps were analyzed, the effect of air density on leader velocity was discussed and evolution in time of the properties of plasma in the leader channel was numerically simulated. The results obtained were used to evaluate the effect of pressure on the quantitative relationships between the potential difference near the leader tip, leader current and its velocity; based on these relationships, criteria for steady development of a leader were determined for various air pressures. Atmospheric electric fields required for lightning initiation from rods and ellipsoidal objects of various dimensions were calculated at different air densities. It was shown that there is no simple way to extend critical ambient fields obtained for some given objects and pressures to other objects and pressures.